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Professor Beth A. Simmons co-authors an important study to inform the 2020 review of the UN Human Rights Treaty Body System

February 10, 2020

Based on their research that identified four mechanisms through which self-reporting can contribute to human rights improvements, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Professor Beth A. Simmons and University of Minnesota Law School Professor Cosette D. Creamer have published “The Proof is in the Process: Self-Reporting Under International Human Rights Treaties” in the January 2020 issue of the American Journal of International Law.

Simmons is a Professor of Politics and Business Ethics at Penn Law, and Creamer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Law at the University of Minnesota. The scholars’ article offers evidence-based policy recommendations to inform the General Assembly’s 2020 review of the international human rights treaty system. This system consists of a number of treaty bodies—or independent committees— that governments established to monitor compliance with their obligations under a broad range of human rights treaties.

Simmons’ and Creamer’s groundbreaking article begins where their prior research left off. In previous articles, they found that the more frequently states engage with the reporting process and the human rights treaty bodies, the better they perform on relevant indicators of rights outcomes.

The authors explore four mechanisms they suggest contribute to human rights improvements—elite socialization, learning and capacity building, domestic mobilization, and law development—in relation to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention Against Torture (CAT), and Convention on (CRC).

The first mechanism—elite socialization—refers to efforts by treaty body members to persuade and socially pressure government elites to “conform to international standards.” To be effective, the authors argue, “persuasive communication must walk a fine line between normative clarity on the one hand and threatening or condescending language on the other.” They find evidence that the human rights committees sometimes adopt such tactics during their dialogues with government representatives and that governments are on average open and susceptible to such efforts.

The second mechanism discussed by the authors—learning best practices and capacity development—refers to a two-way process. Committees are learning through their dialogues with government representatives which laws and policies ‘work’ to effectively protect human rights in practice. They then ‘teach’ these best practices to government officials, via in-person conversations as well as the “committees’ highly visible General Comments” that “further reinforce learning and sharing of best practices.” Creamer and Simmons further find that the self-reporting process contributes to “the development of legal, technical, and institutional capacities to take action,” which can, in turn, expose “previously unnoticed gaps in rights protections.”

Self-reporting also works to mobilize civil society organizations, write Simmons and Creamer, as states often consult with such groups during the preparation of their reports and these organizations frequently submit their own “shadow reports” to the treaty bodies. These reports serve to expose serious violations swept under the rug within states’ own reports, and the authors find that local domestic mobilization via shadow reports has increased over time. Media coverage in Latin America of the report-and-review process also peaks during the dialogue with the treaty bodies, suggesting that the broader public is increasingly aware of the recommendations the committees make to government officials. This mobilization and empowerment of the public and non-governmental groups can potentially “have a catalytic effect in promoting internal policy reform.”

Finally, Creamer and Simmons examine how the self-reporting regime has influenced broader regional law development by the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. They find that both courts increasingly cite to the treaty bodies’ general comments, individual complaints decisions, concluding observations, and state reports. “Not only are documents from the report-and-review process useful for establishing fact patterns in domestic cases,” the authors conclude, “they are becoming common as sources for law elaboration in regional human rights courts. The doctrines developed in these regional courts, in turn, plausibly help to enforce rights on the ground.”

Simmons and Creamer draw from their investigation of these mechanisms to provide a number of recommendations for reform:

  • Encourage greater participation: self-reporting only works if governments participate; treaty bodies can encourage this with public praise, media releases & videoconferencing
  • Ensure dialogue is a balanced, genuine deliberation: persuasive language and tone, as well as expertise, are central to the effective socialization of others
  • Provide guidance on delegation composition: participation of specialized bureaucrats who are tasked with implementing treaty provisions helps lessons learned during the dialogue seep into policy discussions back home
  • Make the dialogue interactive & geared towards problem-solving: smaller & more flexible committee compositions permit delegates to seek advice & learn
  • Bring treaty bodies closer to the people on the ground: holding committee meetings near or in countries under review increases local visibility & relevance of the process, contributing to more effective domestic mobilization

Simmons, the Andrea Mitchell Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor of Law, Political Science and Business Ethics at Penn law, is a renowned expert in international law and human rights.

Creamer, the Benjamin E. Lippincott Chair in Political Economy, researches the politics of international law, with an emphasis on human rights, humanitarian law, and trade.